Monday, January 23, 2017

A Northwoods Almanac 1/20/17

A Northwoods Almanac for 1/20 – 2/2/17  

Sightings – Northern Pintail, Great Blue Heron, Evening Grosbeaks, Great Horned Owls
Vanessa Haese-Lehman sent me a photo of a northern pintail hanging out on the Wisconsin River in Rhinelander. Pintails most commonly winter far south of here in much of the southern U.S. interior, through Central America, and into Bermuda and Cuba. Their core nesting habitat is in Alaska and the Prairie Pothole Region of southern Canada and the northern Great Plains, well west of here. Wisconsin is on the southeastern fringe of the pintail’s North American breeding range. Like many ducks, most pintails pair up and mate prior to their return migration in the spring, so this isolated male will likely be a bachelor this coming year.

photo by Bev Engstrom

John Wilke reported seeing a great blue heron on 12/31 while cross country skiing east of Phillips. The heron was wading in the open water of a small stream flowing into Dardis Lake.  John noted that the heron looked healthy but he rightfully wondered whether it would survive our northern winter.
I consulted the Atlas of Breeding Birds of Wisconsin which says: “In southern Wisconsin individuals are found nearly every winter on CBCs [Christmas Bird Counts], but the vast majority of Wisconsin's breeders are migratory.” Indeed, it’s very uncommon to see a great blue heron up here in the winter, although occasionally one has been reported in a northern Wisconsin Christmas Bird Count. Some individuals have even been recorded on Christmas Bird Counts in Canada each year – only in areas that remain ice free, of course – but many great blues fly as far south as the Caribbean. Why this one has remained north is a mystery.
Kim Dumask in Presque Isle reports that two dozen evening grosbeaks have been visiting their feeders every day since January 1.
Great horned owls are being heard more regularly now. Their peak egg laying period occurs during February. Remarkably, the females can maintain their eggs near 98 °F, the necessary incubating temperature, even when the ambient temperature is more than 70° colder. 
A great horned owl’s typical “song” consists of a deep-toned hooting of 3 to 6 notes, likened by some to the sound of a distant foghorn. Paired birds often synchronize their territorial songs, which is known as duetting. The female sings six notes, or more often a 7-note song, lasting about three seconds. The male responds within a few seconds with a 5-note song also lasting about three seconds. Duetting most commonly begins one to two months before the first egg is laid, so January is often the best time to hear great horned owls.

Robins in Winter
            We continue to see a robin or two eating crabapples from our trees, and several other birdwatchers in our area have said they, too, have robins currently in their yard. So, what gives? Don’t robins migrate south every winter? One way to answer the question is to consult national Christmas Bird Count (CBC) data that has been collected for over a century. The data shows that robins are quite uncommon from central to southern Wisconsin in most winters. The variable in where they will be any given winter is they follow the food, so they can’t be counted on to be a regular visitor in most areas. I’ve attached a graph showing the winter density of robins during the 2003 CBC which shows how few robins typically remain even in southern Wisconsin.

Scatter-hoarding Gray Jays
In the autumn, gray jays become “scatter-hoarders,” preserving food by mixing it with super sticky saliva and then tucking it in woodpecker holes, amongst spruce needles, in a crevice, a broken-off stump, or under loose bark within their territory. They cache insects, berries, mushrooms, and strips of flesh that they’ve pulled from carcasses, sometimes caching up to 50 pounds per bird. Gray jays create literally thousands of food caches, with one study estimating up to 8,000! Remarkably, they are later able to remember where they stashed all these morsels and retrieve some 80% of them. 
The caches allow the jays to begin nesting as early as February in cold, snowy, and apparently foodless conditions, incubating eggs at temperatures as low as -22°F. Why gray jays nest so incredibly early is a mystery. They’re only able to do it because of all the food they cached. Most songbirds struggle mightily to survive the last months of winter, but the gray jay’s thrift in putting up a winter storehouse puts them in another league, and obviously pays enough dividends to raise a healthy clutch of four or five fluffy little jays.
Unfortunately, it appears the species is losing ground. A research study in Ontario found fewer young were being raised following warm falls and winters. The researchers theorize that warmer temperatures interfere with the bird’s niche as a winter hoarder, resulting in more food spoilage, fewer young, and a gradual retrenchment northward.

Old-growth Pines
            I snowshoed with friends this week into two different small stands of old-growth white pines. The largest pine we measured was 49 ½ inches in diameter at breast height, which is as large as any I’ve measured over many years of looking for big trees. This particular tree had no lower branches indicating it was not open grown, but rather had grown within a relatively tight group of other pines.

49.5" dbh

Estimating age for white pines is always a shot in the dark given how quickly they can grow if given adequate sunlight, moisture, and good soil. White pines can live 400 years or more, but the only way to know is to core the tree and count the rings, and I don’t have a corer big enough to do this! John Curtis in his book Vegetation of Wisconsin wrote that many of the big pines cut in the 1800's were about 400 years old.

Equatorial Vortex
            My hope during this current January thaw is that weather forecasters adopt the term “equatorial vortex” and begin naming each warm spell as they do whenever we get a cold snap. Temperatures have been averaging 15-20° above average this week, sending them into the upper 30s if not 40s.
Of course, I’m kidding, but whenever temperatures go below zero, we now want to make a seeming crisis out of it, when in fact our area historically averages around 45 days of below zero temperatures. And from 1971 to 200, our average minimum lowest winter temperature has been -30°F, with -40° occurring on occasion.
So, a northern Wisconsin winter is supposed to be very cold, very snowy, and very long. I’m afraid that as we continue to have milder winters, we will see a “sliding baseline” of expectations, where we diminish what we have historically considered “normal.” And with that, we will see more hyperbolic newscasts about polar vortexes whenever it gets below zero. However, our average temperatures will really be no different than what our area has experienced since we began collecting temperature data over a century ago.

Celestial Events
            We reach 9 hours and 30 minutes of daylight on 1/26 – 40% of our day will now be sunlit. By the end of the month, our days will be growing longer by three minutes a day.
The new moon occurs on 1/26. Look after dusk on 1/31 for Venus to be four degrees north of the crescent moon and Mars to be halfway between it and the moon.

2016 Climate Summary
From NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: The average annual temperature for the contiguous U.S. in 2016 was 54.9°F, which was 2.9°F above the 20th century average. This was the second warmest year of the 122 years on record, behind 2012 (55.3°F), and the 20th consecutive warmer-than-normal year for the U.S. (1997 through 2016).
During the year, the U.S. experienced 15 weather and climate disasters with losses exceeding $1 billion, causing a total of $46.0 billion in damages. This was the second highest number of billion-dollar events in the 37-year record (1980-2016), one less than the 16 that occurred in 2011. Four of these were inland flooding events not associated with named tropical storms, doubling the previous record for number of billion-dollar inland flood events in one year.
Persistent storm tracks led to the wettest year on record for the Upper Midwest. It was the second wettest year on record for Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Alaska had its warmest year ever on record.
Good news included: Above normal annual precipitation in the West contributed to the regional drought footprint being reduced from 45% at the beginning of the year to 22% at the end. And based on data that go back to 2000, the 65,575 fires in 2016 were the sixth fewest on record and burned more than 5.4 million acres, which is the seventh fewest.

Quote for the Week
“A place is not a place until people have both experienced it and shaped it, as individuals, as families, neighborhoods, and communities, over more than one generation. Some are born in their place, some find it, some realize after long searching that the place they left is the one they have been searching for. But whatever their relation to it, it is made a place only by slow accrual, like a coral reef . . . Neither the country nor the society we built out of it can be healthy until we stop raiding and running, and learn to be a quiet part of the time, and acquire the sense not of ownership but of belonging.” – Wallace Stegner

Sunday, January 8, 2017

A Northwoods Almanac for January 6, 2017

A Northwoods Almanac for Jan. 6 – 19, 2017 

Evening Grosbeaks
evening grosbeak range map
            Four evening grosbeaks appeared at our feeders on Jan. 1, a wonderfully “birdy” way to begin our new year.
female evening grosbeak

Two weeks earlier, we were unable to find any evening grosbeaks on our Manitowish Waters Christmas bird count, nor were any seen during the Minocqua Christmas bird count.
The decline of evening grosbeaks over the last two decades is well-documented. Checking statewide Christmas bird counts for Wisconsin from 1980-1981 to 2015-16, the highest count was in 1980-81 with 10,471 birds. The rest of the decade provided good numbers as well, while ups and downs illustrate the irruptive nature of the species.
81-82: 8,387
82-83:  1,707
83-84:  8,173
84-85: 1,245
85-86:  9,257
86-87:  4,178
87-88: 6,962
Then the evening grosbeak numbers started to decline. The last year in which just over a thousand evening grosbeaks were counted was in 2001-02. A decade or so later in 2013-14, only 21 were found in the whole state. Last winter, the count reached 101.
The overall North American population of evening grosbeaks has declined by 91% since 1967, with estimated numbers dropping from 17 million 40 years ago to less than 4 million currently. Statistics from the North American Breeding Bird Survey show populations have dropped precipitously particularly in the East, where numbers there have declined by 97% from 1966 to 2015. In addition, Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count has also shown nearly an 80 percent decrease in population. Evening grosbeaks are now #2 on Audubon’s list of Common Birds in Decline, second only to the northern bobwhite. Evening grosbeaks are also now listed on the 2016 State of North America Birds Watch List, which includes bird species that are most at risk of extinction without significant conservation actions to reverse declines and reduce threats.
The reason for the decline remains elusive with fingers pointed at increased pesticide use to control spruce budworm, tar sands exploration which has destroyed swaths of boreal forest breeding habitat, climate change, forest management favoring fast-growing softwood trees rather than slow-growing hardwoods, and disease outbreaks like salmonella and West Nile virus.
Evening grosbeaks primarily nest in boreal forest regions of Canada. Their southernmost range dips down just barely into the far northern counties of Wisconsin – in the past, we had a pair nesting on our property in Manitowish. They eat mainly seeds, insects, and berries with a bill that can exert over 100 pounds per square inch. Comparatively, humans can exert about 70 pounds per square inch with our back molars. “Grosbeak” comes from the French gros bec, meaning thick beak, and indeed, these birds can crack cherry and olive pits with their bills.

male evening grosbeak

Gray Jays to be Canada’s National Bird?
            The Royal Canadian Geographical Society (RCGS), publisher of Canadian Geographic magazine, recently set the Canadian bird world abuzz with their official recommendation that the gray jay be Canada’s national bird as part of the celebrations for the country’s 150th year of existence. RCGS selected the gray jay, a bird also commonly called Canada jay, after an online popular vote by Canadians. The problem is the gray jay placed third in the popular vote, behind the common loon and the snowy owl. A panel of experts then debated which of these birds was most worthy of the national honor, and they chose the gray jay.
gray jay range map
Thebird was first named Perisoreus canadensis (Canada jay) in Latin in 1766 by Linnaeus. This name was used for the next 191 years, but was changed in 1957 by the American Ornithologists’ Union to “gray jay,” giving it an American spelling that Canadians still resent. They want the spelling to be “grey.”
Most Canadians best know the bird by its moniker “whisky jack,” which comes from the Anglicization of the Cree-Ojibwa name Wisikejack (or Wisakedjak), meaning “mischievous prankster.” In some traditional Ojibwa stories, the trickster Nanabozho takes the gray jay’s form. The Cree people believe the Wisakedjak is a shape-shifter who frequently appears as the gray jay, a benevolent trickster, teacher and messenger of the forest. To many western First Nations, the appearance of a gray jay in the morning is a good omen. Its chattering and whistles are considered an early warning to hunters of nearby predators.                       
The Canadian federal government has the final say as to whether the “grey” jay will be designated as the National Bird, and given some of the vitriol I’ve seen on the Internet, whichever bird they choose will be seen by opponents as bird-brained.                                              
Since the gray jay nests in temperatures as cold as -30°F, and as early as late February, their hardiness seems to be consistent with the people of Canada who also tolerate some truly fierce winters.
In the meantime, a pair of gray jays are making quick work of the peanut suet at Randy and Debbie Augustinak’s home in Land O’Lakes, an uncommon sighting these days in our northern counties.
gray jays photo by Debbie Augustinak
Audubon Christmas Bird Counts
            On 12/21, eleven birders drove very slowly around and around the count circle in Manitowish Waters, stopping and walking here and there in search of birds. And along with seven folks watching their feeders that day, we tallied 25 species, an average number for our area in winter. The highlight of the count goes to Art Foulke who has an Eastern towhee visiting his feeder, a first for our count over its 24-year history. Eastern towhees winter well south of here, typically from central Illinois down to Florida and Texas. They definitely do not belong here in winter, but the one visiting the Foulke’s home apparently hasn’t seen its range map.
            Another highlight was a common goldeneye photographed during the count week on an open portion of the Turtle River, which is another first for our count. Goldeneyes can tolerate extreme cold as long as water stays open somewhere. Goldeneyes are relatively common in counts along the Great Lakes where shorelines often stay open during warmer winters.
The Minocqua Christmas Bird Count tallied 21 species in extremely cold conditions on 12/16. Kudos to them for even being out there!
The northern winter woods is simply a very difficult environment for birds. Ryan Brady and Tim Oksiuta, two excellent birders, participated in the Clam Lake CBC, a deep northwoods count in southern Ashland County. Their top three species of the day were 154 common redpolls, 64 black-capped chickadees, and 37+ white-winged crossbills. Aside from these, they only tallied an additional 34 individual birds of 13 other species in 8+ hours, which included 5 hours of walking nearly 4 miles.
 For a contrast that demonstrates how habitat and warmth make all the difference for birds in winter, Guy David, a Lac du Flambeau resident and ace birder in our area, took part in the Christmas Bird Count in Green Valley, Arizona, south of Tucson. With 50+ birders participating, their total count on 12/28 yielded 161 species! The highlight for Guy was flushing a flock of Montezuma quail, a species I’m still hoping to see some day.

Snowy Owl Update and Project Snowstorm
            The 2016-17 Wisconsin winter continues to produce a very average, low number of snowy owls. As of December 27, only 22 individuals have been reported in Wisconsin, compared to 110 by this date in 2015, 211 in 2014, and 159 in 2013.
The exceptionally high numbers of snowy owls recorded over the last few winters spawned an organization effort called Project Snowstorm. Beginning in 2013, researchers have tagged 43 snowy owls in 10 states, as far west as North Dakota, north to Maine and south to Maryland. They’ve tracked those owls across more than 50,000 miles of total distance, while collecting more than 160,000 precise, three-dimensional GPS fixes that provide latitude, longitude, altitude and flight speed. This effort represents by far the most detailed movement data set for this species and the largest snowy owl telemetry project in the world. I recommend following their website (

Sightings and Upcoming Events
We continue to have a large flock of bohemian waxwings visiting our crabapple trees in Manitowish. We also consistently have three robins vying for the same crabapples.
The 2016 bald eagle aerial surveys confirmed 1,504 occupied nests, 39 more nests than the previous year, according to the WDNR's 2016 Bald Eagle and Osprey Survey Report.  
The 30th annual Sauk Prairie Eagle Watching Days will be held January 13-14.
The 13th Annual Wintering Golden Eagle Survey will take place on January 21. Last year, more than 180 observers covered 60 survey areas from Hastings, MN to southern Iowa and across nine counties in western Wisconsin. They documented 147 golden eagles along with a very high number of Bald Eagles (1,509), all in the bluff country well away from the open water areas of the Mississippi River.

Celestial Events
            After dusk, look for brilliant Venus in the southwest, shining at -4.5 magnitude. Mars is also visible to the upper left of Venus in the southwest twilight, and sets by 9 p.m.
Jupiter (magnitude –2.0) rises around 1 a.m. and shines brightly high in the south by early dawn. Saturn (magnitude +0.5) is emerging from the glow of sunrise – look for it in early dawn very low in the southeast.
On 1/8, the sun will rise one minute earlier for the first time since June 10. Yahoo for that!
The full moon occurs on 1/12 and will be the year’s highest full moon. Variously called the “Wolf Moon” or “Frost in the Teepee Moon,” this should be a brilliant night to bundle up and take a walk to enjoy the moonlight reflected off the snow.
On 1/13, we will hit 9 hours of daylight and start gaining two minutes of light every day.

Please share your outdoor sightings and thoughts: call 715-476-2828, e-mail at, snail-mail at 4245N Hwy. 47, Mercer, WI, or see my blog at